Thursday, December 5, 2013
One is headed to Georgia, the other to Oklahoma State.
Saturday’s state championship game between Stratford and Northwestern features a quarterback battle that rarely surfaces even on the grandest stages.
Between the two, Bulldogs commitment Jacob Park of Stratford and Cowboys commit Mason Rudolph of Northwestern have combined for over 7,200 yards passing to power their teams into the Class AAAA Div. II title game. Both also have good mobility to make plays with their feet so that will on display too when the state’s Shrine Bowl picks lock horns in Columbia’s Williams-Brice Stadium.
Rudolph’s Trojans (14-0) are nationally ranked and considered the top team in the state, continuing a strong recent tradition that’s matched by very few programs in any state. When they run onto the field Saturday, it will be the fifth time in six seasons the Trojans have played in a state final. They’re just 1-3 in those first four appearances, though, and lost a heartbreaker to Greenwood last year, 31-24.
“I’m going to be a little more comfortable with the environment,” Rudolph said at a press conference Monday. “I will be a lot more calm and ready to play.”
They last won it all in 2010. Rudolph took over in 2011.
Northwestern is outscoring teams by an average of 35.3 points per game and advanced to the championship with a 49-21 victory over North Augusta.
Rudolph (6-4, 212) is the catalyst in Northwestern’s air raid attack. He’s 310 for 425 for 3,889 yards and 56 touchdowns with just seven interceptions, and has rushed for 515 yards and 15 more scores.
“Now he’s sitting here at the table two years in a row that Justin (Worley) sat at for three straight years,” Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson said. “That’s a credit to him and what he’s done to prepare himself to be a big-time quarterback in this state, and also what his teammates have done to accept him and grow with him.”
Worley guided the Trojans to title appearances all three years from 2008-10, going 15-0 in his last season before moving on to the University of Tennessee.
Rudolph’s top targets are junior Dupree Hart and senior Quadarius Fair. They’ve caught 93 and 84 passes, respectively, for 46 touchdowns combined.
Stratford’s Park connects on a lower percentage, 225 of 422 for 3,340 yards, but is no less important to the Knights. Last weekend, he tossed three touchdown passes and ran for another in leading Stratford past South Pointe, 36-13.
Northwestern also played South Pointe this season, winning 27-0.
Park became Coach Ray Stackley’s first freshman starter at quarterback four years ago and has been steadily building for this moment. Shortly after state, he’ll play in the Shrine Bowl, an all-American game and then enroll at Georgia.
“It’s been a growing process,” Park said. “We all came in as freshman… It was kind of slow at the beginning. You’re not really sure of yourself your freshman and sophomore year. As the game started slowing down, you start speeding up and making plays.”
Park is reluctant to take too much credit for his team’s success, pointing out the contributions of his teammates. Senior Thad Thompson has over 1,200 yards receiving. Tyree Scroggins, K.J. Givens and Chris Allen have proven to be reliable targets too.
“(The quarterback matchup) is good for headlines but it’s not a one-man game,” he said. “It’s 11 on 11.”
And that includes both team’s defenses, which have flown under the radar. Both squads have ther share of senior leaders on that side of the ball.
Team unity and togetherness will also play a part, Stackley indicated.
“Since the playoffs started, we’ve played better, with more cohesiveness,” he said. “Our team unity and camaraderie is good. Our kids believe in themselves. We know we’re playing a great Northwestern team but we’re going to give them 48 minutes of everything we’ve got.”
“It’s a one-round fight at this point,” Richardson added.